Original illustration by Ole Johnny Hansen for afroginthefjord.com

How to differentiate the Norwegian Dialects?

Original illustration by Ole Johnny Hansen for afroginthefjord.com
Original illustration by Ole Johnny Hansen for afroginthefjord.com

When you start learning Norwegian everything looks nice and simple. 5 million inhabitants in this country you think, it can’t be that hard. You’ll learn the one language here and you will be fine. Okay, two languages actually, with nynorsk. Wait, three with the Sami language (actually there are many Sami languages but they use one in official matters such as NAV).

Why are there more dialects than people in Norway?
Then, to complicate the whole thing it seems like there are more dialects in Norway than there are Norwegian people. Note that there is a difference between a language and a dialect.. And when you are absolutely sure you can recognise a dialect from Sørlandet when someone speaks, you’re like “Hey, you are from Sørlandet right?”, super proud of yourself, trying a “from Kristiansand right?”. And then instead of tapping you on the back and telling you “I am so proud of you little foreigner” they will look at you like you are some kind of godfjott and tell you “Huuh no, I come from Lillesand, a town almost 30 km away from Kristiansand. Nothing to do with Kristiansand dialect actually, we have our own particular dialect.”

And then the guy starts explaining to you why his dialect is so special. “You see, in Kristiansand they use this word, while we don’t. And they say their “r” like this but we say it a bit different”. “Oh Really? Så spennende” is what I usually say, when what I really want to say is that where I come from, 2000 km from here, the valley separating his hometown from the biggest city looks like peanuts on the map. I come from Marseille and most Norwegians don’t even differentiate that from Nice which is more than 300 km away…Plus how long would it take me to recognise every single dialect from every village? Even Norwegians can’t do that!

Why do more than 2 persons living in every single valley, every single piece of fjord, every piece of land surrounded by water in Norway consider they have their own very specific way of speaking? Believe it or not, they actually do: before immigration and roads and oil and stuff Norwegians had more interaction with sheep and goats than with other Norwegians (and that is why it is called a hyrdestund).

So accept and embrace Norway’s language diversity, and try as best as you can to recognise every dialect. In order to recognise a Norwegian dialect, you need to follow these three simple steps:

1- Make sure it is not Swedish

This might appear completely out of the topic for a Norwegian, but actually for a foreigner Swedish sounds like a funny way of speaking Norwegian.

My technique in the beginning was to assume anyone with a dialect I’ve never heard before is a Swede. I tell you honestly, it’s a very bad strategy. Because if there is something a Norwegian hates more than telling you he is from that valley over there and not from the closest big city, it is explaining he is not from Sweden.

Anyway, to recognise a Swede it is easy, you wait for the “kj” sounds. They take it always from the throat whereas Norwegians don’t. They also have another melody to their language which is hard to explain here. And they have words such as smästua instead of hytte. But of course for a foreigner it all sounds the same. In a written form it is easy to recognise: if you see ä and ö everywhere instead of å and ø in words it is Swedish. If you see ø and å in the written form but all you hear is dlødludøo, then it’s Danish. (And if you confuse Danish and Norwegian when spoken orally you have a serious hearing problem).

2- Figure out from which big area this Norwegian dialect is from
Once you are sure it is not Swedish you need to identify from which part of Norway this person is coming from. There are big areas in Norway, which overarching dialects. After 5 years in Norway I can only recognise 3 dialects: Østlandet, Vestlandet and Northern Norway. And a little bit of Trøndelag.

People from Østlandet and especially from Oslo have this quite annoying habit of thinking that they speak “normal” or universal Norwegian, that the rest of Norway has a dialect except themselves. This is not true: as much as they write bokmål (which is highly inspired by Danish, not anything Norwegian here), people from different parts of Østlandet and even from Oslo use different words and pronounce things differently from each other. For expample I am starting to hear difference between the people living East and West of Akerselva (river splitting Oslo in two). Those in the East say “Majorstua” while the Westerners say “Majorstuen”. Also those in the East of Oslo say “skav” instead of “skog”. And they drive less expensive cars. And they don’t have summer houses in Barbados and winter hytte in Chamonix.

All in all Østlandet dialect has very open vowels and they speak quite fast (except if they are old, then they speak nice and clear). Most foreigners understand this dialect best because it is the one we learn at norskkurs. It is a bit plain though, if you want some exciting expressions and interesting language habits you’ll have to switch to another dialect.

Vestlandet is an area where people really had no contact with each other as they were each on their little island. There is a new dialect virtually every 20 km in Vestlandet.

In Bergen their “r” is like a French “r”, quite sharp in the throat instead of a rolling it like people in Østlandet. In Ålesund dialect has a lot of “k”s everywhere as proves the sentece Hakke dokke nokke dokke da? which by the way includes a subject, a verb and a complement. Also people in Vestlandet usually write in nynorsk which makes that ikke becomes ikkje (also different when pronuncing it) and noen becomes nokon. My favorite expression to date is bonete which means harry. Example: steik kor bonete! (Uff! so harry!)

My problem is with the Stavanger dialect. First of all I find it a very difficult dialect to understand. The first time I heard a guy speak Stavanger dialect I asked him where in Sweden he was from. He was not too happy about that question, especially because people from Stavanger seem to think they come from a very important place. Sure, the oil gets in from there, but keep it jantelovesque: stay humble.

Then it seems like no one is able to say which region Stavanger is located in. Is it Vestlandet? Is it Sørlandet? To a Northern Norwegian all of these guys are Sørenga, to an Oslo inhabitant all of this is just the West of Norway. So they came up with Vestsørlandet. No sorry, Sørvestlandet.

>Northern Norway?
Northern Norwegians have a completely different melody to the way they speak compared to any other dialect in the country (see a list of vocabulary in Northern Norwegian dialects here). Also, most “Hv” sounds become “K” so Hva becomes Ka, Hvordan becomes kordan (or korsan) and hvorfor becomes kofor. They don’t say hun but ho, and they say helvete a lot. They don’t say full (drunk) but maurings and a regular sentence in Northern Norwegian dialect can be something impossible to understand even for other Norwegians such as Katti ælta æ sloget på vidda. (Dialect from Alta. Answer to what that means at the bottom of this article).

In doubt, start swearing. If it is a Norwegian Norwegian listening to you they will either smile or not even notice you just swore. Because that is part of the regular vocabulary in Northern Norwegian dialects (compared to the much more puritan Sørlandet culture I’ve heard).

Note that dialects have not always been a topic of light discussions. Until the 1970s, those with a Northern Norwegian dialect were discriminated against in Oslo because they were seen as dirty and non-reliable. They could not find rooms to rent or jobs in Oslo, where ads were writing Nordlendinger uønsket. The discrimination against Northern Norwegians stopped when others took their place of unwanted strangers with a funny way of speaking: the Pakistanis.

People from Trøndelag don’t say dere or even dokker like Northern Norwegians, they say dokk. They don’t say vann but vatten. When they say they are ready (klar) they actually mean they are tired. And they have crazy words like huggutullinj which means you feel dizzy (svimmel) but that might just be in my friend’s little town of Haltdalen.
They have many expressions such as Må itj fårrå nåles (du må ta det med ro og ikke gjøre noe uoverveid). All in all Trøndesk dialect is quite confusing for a foreigner and require subtitles.

3- To recognise every single dialect from each other: The woolen socks strategy
Once you know which overarching region the dialect is from, you need to figure out with little community with his/her own dialect this person comes from.

In order to do so, ask him or her how to say “woolen socks” in his/her dialect. Woolen socks is something that every single Norwegian community had to think of naming, without the influence of other peoples’ language/dialect. You will get answers as far away as høssulæst, ullsokker (Oslo), hjemmestrikka læstra (Nord Norge), tjukksåkka, tjokke labba, labba, oillugg, oillsokk (Trøndelag), føslo (Valdres), uillhussu, raggsokker, lodder (Rogaland), ryfylket (Hjelmeland), uilsåkkan (Troms fylke), tjokkelæsta (Sunnmør), uillhussu, raggår, tjukkeragga; raggsokker (Lørenskog). I don’t have all the references here, but I am betting there are around 100 different ways of saying woolen socks in Norway.

You can of also ask directly where exactly that person comes from, but that is less fun. Your second questions needs to be “How do you say woolen socks in your dialect” so that you can send me the answer.

Conclusion: This is not in any way an exhaustive article on all Norwegian dialects. Most dialects are not talked about here (for example Sørlandet, Finnmark, and all the little places all over the country). For tips to recognise other dialects I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for a blogpost 5 more years from now when I have gotten better at this: I did my best to convey what I know about Norwegian dialects, which is not much. A complete overview would require maybe a PhD in Linguistics which I encourage you to write (but I am sure someone else has thought of this before).

So that’s it for today. My next mission: organise tournaments for foreigners competing to recognise Norwegian dialects. And start make impressions of every dialect. And travel around Norway to take some sound samples of everything I hear. That would be so much fun if I could do that. Some training ahead! I wish you luck in your path to understanding Norwegian language and people, as always. For further study you can check out NRK’s show on dialects.

**The sentence from Alta dialect Katti ælta æ sloget på vidda means: Når la igjen hun mindre attraktive jenten på ødemarka på toppen av fjellet. Alta men are obviously men of few words!

37 thoughts on “How to differentiate the Norwegian Dialects?

  1. I think it is so stupid when people from a really small place must correct you when you say for example Kristiansand instead of Lillesand. Especially when you are not even from Norway. I would give you points for getting as close as Kristiansand. I lived in Kristiansand for 3.5 years and honestly – there is a difference but it is not as huge as they think. There are places with more variation than Lillesand vs. Kristiansand. Even on this little island I live on now there are variations, but I tell people not from here that they wouldnt hear the difference because they probably are more similar to people who did not live here for many years of their lives. And what you say about Stavanger is so true!


    1. I live in Lillesand, and you are so right about the subtle differences between here and Kristiansand. I hardly hear it at all. One of the dead give aways in Lillesand is that we say “ikkje vel?” In Kristiansand they say “ikke sant?”


    2. It’s just about the difference in the dialect, it’s also about the geography. Kristiansand is in Vest-Agder fylke, and Lillesand is in Aust-Agder.


  2. I feel that the Stavanger dialect is the easiest one for me to recognize, as a hard of hearing Norwegian who depends a lot on lipreading. They pronounce ikke as isje and gutter/jenter as guttår/jentår. I can recommend the audio version of “Mannen som elsket Yngve”, which is read by Rolf Kristian Karlsen, native of Stavanger.

    And apparently, the Danes talk like they have a potato stuck in their throat, while Norwegians have a more sing-song way of speaking ;D
    Check out this comic, by the way! http://satwcomic.com/language-lesson


    1. Went running to Audible after reading your comment and couldn’t find the audio version of “Mannen som elsket Yngve”, could you please share where did you find it? The book was pretty nice.


    2. In the movie, they pronounce their “k” like norwegians from south east Norway pronounce their “skj”. Like when Jarle says “ikke”, it sounds like “iskje”…🙂 A Swede would say “inte”. “Ikke”, “iskje”, “inte”. I have no idea how a Danish would pronounce it. But say, the classic type,… well at least the version they give in my french-norwegian method, which is supposed to contain mostly “Bokmål”, say that the “classic” pronunciation is “k”. Like a “tough k”… Not a “skj” like Jarle does in the movie. I find all of those pronunciations differences interesting.🙂


  3. Always a lot of fun to try and pinpoint the dialect🙂 I personally love the sound of the northern dialects (Trømso etc).
    Other easy tips for differentiating Swedish from Norwegian: jag (Swedish) = jeg (Norwegian), inte = ikke, äta=spise, måste = må, ah = ja, precis = akkurat…


  4. Because of the dialect differences we Norwegians are always trying to guess where someone we meet come from. So very often if two Norwegians meet they will start the conversation by asking where the other one is from. This is also a bit of an ice breaker as you can then start talking about people you know from the same place (Oh, you’re from Lillesand!? I went to uni with a guy from there, his name was Terje. Do you know him?) or talk about a time you visited the place/area (When I was 12 I had a friend who’s parents had a hytte near Lillesand. I spent three weeks there with them in 1983). I’ve noticed that we tend to do the same when we meet people who are probably not from Norway, and I meet many of them (ie foreigners in Norway) who are fed up with this question. But it’s a very normal and polite way to start a conversation here.


  5. I loved this!! Most of it so spot on! So, in 5 years, and I really hate to wait that long, maybe you can find out how come Norwegians, when speaking English, mix up their v and w sounds! Now we all know that we don’t have the w sound here in Norway. Even if the word is spelled with a w, like wienerbrød, we say vienerbrød, right? Well then, why do they take a word like viking and say wiking? Visit becomes wisit and so on. You would think that with the v sound being the only one of the two we use in our own language, why do we mix them up when we speak English?


    1. Ha ha Bente, I SO agree on that! I’ve noticed it several times and can never understand why Norwegians who do that need to complicate themselves that much! Why on earth has that happened?
      I have a friend called Vidar, who couldn’t introduce himself normally to my (international) friends – even his own name became “Widar”, and he couldn’t hear it when I tried to draw his attention to it😉

      But I guess it’s like French and Italian people putting h’es where they’re not when speaking English🙂


      1. I have a PhD in linguistics (although not one on Norwegian dialects) so I can (help) explain this, I think. Especially after childhood, it’s very difficult to learn to make a sound difference that your own language doesn’t have, so you might notice the differnece is there and try very hard to make it, but it’s difficult to remember which sound goes where, and to get the ones that are not exactly like in your native language right. I’m Dutch and I find the difference between Norwegian u and y very difficult to make, because they both sound like versions of the same ‘u’-sound that Dutch has. r and l are difficult for speakers of Japanese in the same way, and so are v and w for speakers of Norwegian. I’ve looked it up to make sure, and Norwegian v is usually not quite like English v. In English, you push air out while touching your top teeth to your lower lip; in Norwegian, you only briefly touch your teeth against your lip. English w has the same briefness (almost touch your lips together, then quickly open up again) as Norwegian v, so it’s easy to mix up with it, although it isn’t supposed to involve teeth.

        The bottom line: if two sounds are difficult to keep apart, chances are you’ll be all over the place when trying to speak a language which you know has both sounds. I had never noticed it with v/w before, but if you look up Thorbjørn Jagland’s speech when Obama got the Nobel prize, you really hear him mixing up his v’s (‘world’ with a Norwegian v) and w’s (‘vision’ with something in between English w and Norwegian v). That makes sense as a proper mix-up🙂.

        I guess that for people like ‘Widar’, saying w for v is a form of overcompensation: for him, ‘w’ is just the English way of saying v and w, so that’s what he does. Very strange that he couldn’t hear the difference between his native and English pronunciations of his own name, though. Wow!


  6. Brilliant work so far! Looking forward to reading the next bit in five years.

    Hoso is the word for sock in the dialect spoken in Toten, witch is a little place that lies by the western shores of Mjøsa. The word is also used by in other dialects from around Mjøsa.

    Remember that “hosolest”, or “høssulæst” is part of an expression that means to walk around in your socks, whitout having your shoes on. “Hoso” or “høsso” menans sock, and “lest” or “læst” is a form used on the inside of whatever you want give shape to. A “lest” is ofthen used by a shoemaker, and in the earlyer mentioned expression your feet sorta acts as a “lest” for your socks. The full expression is: “Å gå i hosolesten,” (Walking in the “hosolest”.)

    I guess Norwegian realy is a little wierd…

    Also, exelent blog! Big fan of all your impressive insigth in the mind and ways of the norwegian people. Keep it up!


  7. Father-Mentz Thorpe (Christiansen)
    Mother-Mathea (Halvorsen) Thorpe
    Both are deceased, originally from Norway


  8. I love your blogg! But I just have to correct you: Wollen socks are kalled “læsta” in North Norwegian dialects. Another point is that in the northen part of Norway the Norwegian dialect are somtimes influenced by Sami language and syntacs. To make it even more complicated: The sami languages hasn’t got the sounds p and g.


  9. I believe a few corrections are needed here.

    Bokmål and Nynorsk are not considered different languages, but different written standards for the Norwegian language.

    In addition to the Sami languages, there is also the Kven language, which is close to Finnish.

    It’s a wide-spread myth that there are unusually many and different dialects in Norway. The reason people believe this, is that dialects have higher status than in many other countries, and are commonly used on radio on TV. In most other countries, you are likely to hear only one variety in the spoken media. Combined with prejudices against dialect usage and a strong tendency to switch to a standard language when speaking to foreigners, you can easily be fooled into believing that dialects are more or less non-existent if you travel around Europe. Take a random European country, and it will probably have bigger dialectal differences than Norway. France is no exception, but how likely is it that a Norwegian tourist will be met with the classical Niçard dialect when speaking to a local in Nice?

    “Hyrdestund” has probably nothing to do with sexual intercourse with animals. The origin is better sought in the French (!) expression “heure du berger”.

    The “kj” sound is mostly useless in differenciating between Norwegian and Swedish. Even native speakers would have problems telling the difference. You must mean the “sj” sound. Although there are many ways to pronounce “sj” in Swedish, it’s often pronounced farther back in the mouth in Swedish.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “smästua”. I’ve never seen such a word, and Google gives zero hits outside this blog. “Stuga” or “sommarstuga” are common equivalents in Swedish.

    Bokmål is neither “inspired by Danish” nor “not anything Norwegian”. Bokmål is the result of taking written Danish and gradually mixing it with Norwegian over some 150-200 years. (A very simple explanation, it’s way more complex than that.)

    In the traditional Oslo dialect Oslomål and other dialects on Østlandet, the word for “forest” is “skau”, usually pronounced “skævv”. Both “skog” and “skau” are allowed in Bokmål, but only “skog” is allowed in Nynorsk. The Danish word is “skov”, which makes it a mystery why “skog” has entered Bokmål as the most common form.

    Many open vowels in Østlandsk? Never heard that been mentioned before. Could be true, but I wouldn’t rely on it to recognise the dialect.

    Sørenga is a place in Oslo. The word for Southerners is “søringa”.

    “K” for “hv” is not restricted to Northern Norway. It is common in all of Norway outside Østlandet. “Ho” is even more wide-spread, and can be heard in both Vestfold and Østfold, not far from Oslo. And again the same for “vatn”/”vatten”, which can be heard in most parts of Norway.

    There are plenty of dialect guides on the net. Here’s a very rough guide for some well known traits:

    Uvular “r” like in French or German: From Bergen and to the South
    Palatalised sounds and loss of final -e: Trøndelag (“itj” = “ikke”)
    Plurals and present tense in -ær: Østfold and Vestfold
    No retroflex sounds as in Østlandsk “hardt”: West
    Plurals like “bila” for “bilene”/”bilane”: Østlandet north of Oslo (and Oslomål, which unfortunately is becoming rare)
    Plurals like “bilan”: Trøndelag, Northern Norway
    Very close “a” sound: Stavanger/Rogaland
    “Soft consonants” like “tebage” for “tilbake” etc.: South/Southwest along the coast

    The next step would be to recognise even more verb and noun endings and various pronouns. I wouldn’t rely too much on vocabulary.


  10. Okay, I come from Østlandet south of Oslo and we speak nothing like them. We end our words much more on a’s instead of en’s, GatA – gatEN. We also use a “thick” L and use Æ instead of E sometimes, Ælj(thick L) – elg. We also say skæven instead of skog, kørja insted of kurven, kjærka insted of kirken. This is mainly in Vestfold. So Oslo is bokmål, but vestfold – as far as I know does not speak bokmål🙂


  11. Hilarious!
    I love your writing. Us Norwegians take ourselves way to serious most of the time. Learning Norwegian is easy compared to mastering our culture and general stiffness. Not to mention the infamous jantelov! Please, please go out of your way to mess with the jantelov as often as you can. We need more critique and antijanting here!


  12. Neimen så spennende da….. I have lived in Norway for 25 years. My Norskkurs was conducted by a man from Switzerland. When I finally landed in Molde, Norway (Vestlandet) I didn’t understand what the hell they were talking about. But being a genius in languages I picked up most of the talking within 6 weeks, which brought out a lot of recognition from my fellow co-workers. Love your blog.


    1. Nei, dævven. D e itj så værst. Six weeks is excellent for learning to understand that garbled dialect.


  13. I find some of the dialects in Norway VERY frustrating. We, in the English-speaking world, deal more with accents than dialects. There aren’t fifty ways to say and write the basics – I, you, he, she, it, you (plural), we, they, them, not, etc. I find that “dialectic pride” from some Norwegians matters more to them than being understood… which is ridiculous. If I knew that someone was foreign – and obviously not a native English speaker – I would do my best to use the closest thing to “standard” English as possible, so they understand, so that we can have a conversation. Even Norwegians have problems understanding each other!

    But no, plenty of Norwegians often expect *us* to understand their little koselig goat or whale speak, in addition to both written forms of their language. They will even write in dialect – especially in social media. My first reaction when I see it: “illiterate”. And then when we don’t understand them, sometimes they will just switch to English. “Um… hello?… I speak Norwegian, I just don’t speak YOUR weird version of it that only 500 others speak. How about dropping the dialect, except when you are around family / friends / others from the same area?” I told this one guy with a very heavy vestlandsk dialect (Haugesund, Karmøy, somewhere like that) that I understood almost nothing he said (which was true), and asked him if he could use “proper” Norwegian with me. I got that famous Norwegian blank stare for about 20 seconds, and he was speechless! Hahaha.


  14. I would just like to point out some inconsistencies regarding your presentation of Northern Norwegian dialect:
    hjemmestrikka læstra <- Never heard, I have heard hjemmestrikka læster, but only if they're actually homemade(doesn't matter by who), but almost everyone I know says ullsåkker.
    Katti ælta æ sloget på vidda sounds a lot more like something you will find in Lakselv or something said by a same(sapmi). I've never actually heard "sloget" and I grew up in Alta, and the rest of the sentence practically smells sapmi.
    I've NEVER heard the word maurings. Everyone I know, young and old, says full.
    But I can confirm the heavy swearing centric part, I made it a game to make new phrasing that sound like swearing. For example, "Hel hvete" or "Helsesenteret", it's all about where you put the pressure🙂


  15. I think that the nation’s history has had much to say regarding the many dialects around the country. In the Viking Age there were small, independent kingdoms everywhere, and each one laid claim to their particular area using their own heritage, their family. This didn’t change much even though power became more centralized through the middle ages. Just reading the sagas and stories from that time shows how dependent the whole Norwegian society was on ancestry. Being a son of somebody was a honorary title (ideally), and it told other people a lot about who you were as an individual.

    Ancestry includes upbringing, reputation and other expectations – and it is often related to where you come from as well. If you are from Oslo’s west side you are of Western Oslo- “ætt”, sort of. Being from there conjures images of wealth, class and education (just as you alluded to yourself). Being from Hammerfest, on the other hand, alludes to being born of fishermen or Reindeer herders.

    The conversation-opener “where are you from?” is much more than just a question of location in Norway. It is a question of who you are.

    So we Norwegians have kept our local dialects (despite centralized power attempting to remove them) and a sense of identity connected to them through the centuries. We have adapted to their existence by being quite good at determining the little differences between them, because they help us determining character. However, the dialects are quickly changing now, becoming more standardized, more conformist, every year. There are professors from Vadsø and lowbrow thugs from Holmenkollen (I assume). It is not as good a marker for character as it used to be.


  16. I can recall that in Lofoten we used several words for wool socks. I have not lived there for 35 years, but you can still hear it in my accent when I talk where I am from. Wool socks = gråhåssa, grålæsta, læsta.


  17. As both an Østfolding and a Nordlending, I find that although my dialect is your typical Central Østfold dialect coupled with the compulsory swearing of a nordlending.

    In school, whenever I was scolded for swearing every five words, I always used the excuse ‘Æ e halvt norlending’ (I am half north norwegian), and I got away with it every single time🙂

    Raggsokkær: Sarpsborg (or Sasjbårr, as we actually pronounce it it) in Østfold.


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